Often times a survey of the “greatest” or the “most” or whatever will be heavily tilted toward more recent times because people are dumb and have short memories, but in the case of the Super Bowl Halftime show, it’s because they really were a limp, cold nothingburger for about a quarter century.
Super Bowl IV: For the first three Super Bowls, the halftime entertainment was an uninspiring parade of college marching bands, leading Gil McKean of the New York Times to propose that should have two players “bare-knuckle it on the 50-yard line. Finally, in 1970, the NFL turned to Broadway Carol Channing to perform “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Baby steps, people. Baby steps.
Super Bowl V: The addition of singing proved to be such a hit, that the NFL then turned to Up With People, a singing group of hundreds who toured the world spreading a message of love and community and a bunch of other garbage. They would dominate the Super Bowl stage for the next 15 years, appearing four more times, before the league came to its senses.
Super Bowl VI: Given the pace at which these things typically happened, it’s actually a miracle that it took just six year for the show to feature a black performer, and Ella Fitzgerald singing “Mack the Knife” isn’t a bad way to start. But they brought back Carol Channing just to cover their bets. That’s right, Channing wasn’t just the first featured performer in SB history, but the the first to appear twice. Good lord.
Super XXVII: TV ratings for the big game had been in a slow decline for about a decade, forcing producers to pull out all the stops. They backed a truckload of money up to the King of Pop’s house, and Michael Jackson delivered an over-the-top performance brimming with hubris (watch how long he stands stock still basking in the applause), pyrotechnics and hit singles. The halftime was never the same.
Super Bowl XXXV: Despite the success of MJ’s performance, which caused ratings to jump from 61 to 66 in a single year, the league continued to let Walt Disney and Radio City produce the lion’s share of the shows, and ratings again drifted downward. So the league turned things over to MTV, who put together a show featuring Aerosmith, *N Sync, Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige and Nelly, culminating in an all-star jam of “Walk This Way.” Walt Disney and Radio City haven’t been invited back since.
Super Bowl XXXVIII: MTV’s reign would be short-lived, however, as 2004 show brought shame on our once great nation. After an avalanche of hits from Jessica Simpson, the marching bands the Spirit of Houston from the University of Houston, and the Ocean of Soul of Texas Southern University, Janet Jackson, P. Diddy, Nelly, and Kid Rock, Justin Timberlake Janet Jackson took the stage to do his single “Rock Your Body.” As Timberlake shouted the final lyrics “… at the end of this sing,” he reached across Jackson’s chest, grabbed the right side of her buster and ripped it off, exposing her breast. More shocking than the breast itself was the rather large sunburst ring that adorned the nipple – who’d’a guessed? What followed was weeks of pearl-clutching, shame, outraged, contrition, apologies and massive FCC fines. MTV has not yet been invited back.
Super Bowl XXXIX: The league then turned to Don Mischer who decided to get himself a Beatle, and given that Ringo was busy, he settled for Paul McCartney, who was assumed to be a huge crowd pleaser and almost certain not to expose a body. McCartney’s rating weren’t very good, and his show was forgettable, but he ushered in an era of getting the BIGGEST ACT IN THE WORLD.
Super Bowl LXI: And thank god it did, because it led to Prince taking the stage for what our boss has declared “Best halftime show ever … end of story.” Prince, backed up by the FAMU marching band, tore through “We Will Rock You,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Baby I’m a Star,” “Proud Mary,” `“All Along the Watchtower,” “Best of You,” “Purple Rain” under a rainy sky lit purple on a stage in the shape of his iconic glyph. He crushed it.
Super Bowl XLVIII: Though it doesn’t have the culture heft of a lot of other performance, the show Bruno Mars put on in his Super Bowl was a stunner. Dressed in a gold jacket with black lapels and matching skinny tie, and backed up by a similarly dressed band, Mars threw down a performance that would’ve made James Brown proud, and gave Mars the biggest Super Bowl record sales bounce in history. Why he let the Red Hot Chili Peppers on that stage is anyone’s guess.
Super Bowl XLIX: Katy Perry’s chance to shine finally came, but it was overshadowed by an arrhythmic shark. Setting aside and personal contempt/disinterest in Perry’s music, when she began to sing “Teenage Dream” and “California Gurls” the set changed to a beach scene and show was suddenly surrounded by dancing palm trees, beach balls, surfboards and sharks, a vision that had people across the land wondering if they’d been roofied. But things got extra weird when the now notorious “Left Shark” found itself woefully out of step with its impeccably choreographed friend, “Right Shark.” Mercifully, Missy Elliott came out soon after for a breakneck medley of her own hits that served as a fine palate cleanser. But humiliation was not over, as later that week, Perry’s arch nemesis Taylor Swift brought a shark out onto her stage during a show in Foxborough and started laughing. And to this day “Left Shark” has his own Wikipedia page.
Super Bowl L: There’s been a lot of talk about how the NFL’s rating have been down this year. Some have noted that their usually down in a presidential election year because people’s attentions are elsewhere, some have credited the drumbeat of concussion talk, and still others have blamed Colin Kaepernick’s season-long protest. But maybe the seeds for the decline were sown by Beyonce’s jaw-dropping performance of “Formation” at the previous Super Bowl. After Coldplay offered a stark reminder of why nobody buys their records anymore, Bruno Mars did “Uptown Funk” and then gave way to Bey, clad all in black, fronting a phalanx of dancers, as she sang “Formation” her defiant call-to-arms in post-Ferguson America.
It was an amazing performance, but not everyone loved it. “This is football, not Hollywood, and I thought it was really outrageous that she used it as a platform to attack police officers who are the people who protect her and protect us, and keep us alive,” declared ex-NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani. The official video to the song, which had come out the day before, did nothing to quell the concerns of Giuliani and his ilk.
Watch Lady Gaga try to plant her flag in the annals of Super Bowl Halftime History when the New England Patriots meet the Atlanta Falcons at 6:30pm ET on FOX by subscribing to Sling Blue.